Peterson is the New Driscoll: Why Evangelicals Seek Out Manly Men
There’s a void in evangelical culture. Scholars have discussed Evangelicals’ attraction to strongmen and their attempts to make men fulfill their God-given gender role, but Evangelicals currently lack the leaders needed to defend their values and help men be manly. Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, and the more recent Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement have all attempted to revive traditional masculinity among young evangelical men.
Strongmen—like President Trump— embody traditional masculinity. They also act to spread it among their followers. Evangelicalism has lacked the patriarch it needs to direct the lives of its young men ever since YRR’s most prominent pastor, Mark Driscoll, fell from grace. But then Jordan Peterson came along.
Peterson has found an audience among religious people; this is in spite of the fact that he is not religious. Commentators and outlets such as David Brooks, Christianity Today and the Gospel Coalition have spoken positively of Peterson. Peterson’s ideological similarities to evangelicals might explain this appeal. At the height of his popularity, Driscoll’s stated beliefs and hyper-masculine persona exemplified many cherished values within mainstream evangelicalism, which allowed him to amass a large following of Evangelicals in the mid-2000s to the early 2010s.
Historian Molly Worthen writes that evangelicals are attracted to strongmen as leaders because they are attracted to leaders that provoke their emotions, not their intellect. Since the second Great Awakening, white evangelicals have been drawn to charismatic leaders that have emphasized ecstasy and piety. Driscoll developed a following in Seattle, Washington at his church Mars Hill through both his confrontational preaching style and his promotion of a muscular Christianity. Peterson also fits this strongman archetype. He developed a following through his fatherly YouTube videos, and gained wider fame when he refused to use gender neutral pronouns as required by the University of Toronto, where Peterson taught Psychology. Both of these men promoted the traditional family model, going against the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the liberal cities where they lived. The Gospel Coalition says Peterson “represents a secular revolt against the bastions of secularism [namely universities].” According to white evangelicals, Driscoll and Peterson stand up to the pernicious forces of political correctness and its advocates.
Anthropologist Jessica Johnson explains that Driscoll—and Evangelicals in general—wanted young men to follow traditional masculinity. Strongmen exemplify hyper masculine ideals. Driscoll called modern young men “boys who can shave,” suggesting that they look like adults but behave like children. He also equated these young men to Peter Pan; they don’t want to grow up, start a family, and take responsibility for themselves. Driscoll wanted men to mature and take headship of their households and society. Peterson also tries to teach young men the value of traditional masculinity. According to Peterson, women want a man who can take care of them, because they’re vulnerable when children come along and they want “someone competent to support mother and child when that becomes necessary.” He suggests women want men “who brings to the table something they can’t already provide.” (Emphasis added) Men need to toughen up, so they can live up to Peterson’s secular complementarianism. Evangelicals flock to this message because they view men as the pillars of the family, the Church, and the larger society, so men need to be strong to fulfill these roles.
Evangelicals’ strongman mentality and their hyper masculinity feed into their desire to blame men (yes, it’s usually men) for society’s problems and not social structures, according to sociologist James Hunter. Driscoll embodied this rugged individualism. The pastor stated, “Real men carry their own load,” and they don’t look to others to carry it for them. Peterson claims transferring the blame for one’s problems from oneself to society produced the Soviet Union and causes school shootings. Peterson also claims someone should ask himself if he has “taken full advantage of the opportunities offered” to him before blaming society for his problems. Evangelicals heed this warning. Sociologists like Michael Emerson and Christian Smith show that evangelicals tend to think the way to change someone’s poor circumstances is to change their thoughts and values; telling them to focus on social structures won’t help them–or worse, it will hurt.
Peterson shows how a secular leader can appeal to Evangelicals despite not being religious. Like Peterson, President Trump isn’t particularly religious, at least not by traditional Evangelical standards, but has developed a following among this religious group. Peterson and Trump are both viewed as friendly to their cause, and Evangelicals view Trump as a defender of their values who rams his head against political correctness. For these reasons, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Robert Jeffress have been loyal supporters of Trump. The President also represents the form of hyper masculinity that evangelicals value. In the age of Driscoll, you had to be religious to capture the Evangelical imagination. Now, it seems Evangelicals will cling to any manly man who will defend their values in the age of Peterson and Trump.
Kenneth E. Frantz is a Religious Studies major at the University of Oklahoma. His work has been featured on Real Clear Religion. Twitter: @KennethEthanFr1
Samuel L. Perry is an assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the changing dynamics of religion, family, and politics in the United States. Dr. Perry has published for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. Twitter: @socofthesacred